Among the various hotspots just beyond Europe's borders, of particular concern to European observers is the breakway province of Abkhazia, located on the Black Sea within Georgia's internationally recognized borders. The territory, which borders Russia, has been a de facto independent state since a bloody armed conflict with Georgia in 1992-1993 in which hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians were expelled from Abkhazia.
In recent months, Abkhazia has once again been a source of tension between Georgia and Russia. Georgia has offered Abkhazia autonomy but refuses to recognize it as an independent state. Tbilisi retains control of the strategic Kodori Gorge within Abkhazia, having deployed forces there in 2006 to disarm a local rebel group.
Russia, on the other hand, has given essential support to Abkhazia, which otherwise has few links to the outside world. Russian peacekeepers are stationed there, the Russian ruble is the official currency and most Abkhazians have been issued Russian passports.
Tensions flared between Georgia and Russia in April when Tbilisi accused the Russians of shooting down an unarmed Georgian drone plane over Abkhazia, a charge the Russians deny. The UN Security Council plans to discuss the accusations Friday at Georgia's behest. In a recent report, UN observers said the plane was shot down by a Russian fighter but criticized Georgia for stoking tensions by flying drones over the territory. The Abkhazian Defence Ministry has since claimed to have shot down several more Georgian drones.
In another diplomatic effort, a delegation of ambassadors from 15 European Union countries was also due to arrive in Abkhazia Friday for a two-day visit, where they plan to hold talks with President Sergei Bagapsh. The Abkhazian news agency, Apsnipress, reported that the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, planned to visit the Abkhaz capital Sokhumi on June 6.
Abkhazia's Prime Minister Alexander Ankvab talks to SPIEGEL ONLINE about why his people want their own state and the role of Russia.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the last few weeks, your Defense Ministry repeatedly reported the shooting down of unmanned Georgian spy planes. Politicians in Georgia's capital Tbilisi are talking up the strength of their army. Is another war in the Caucasus on the horizon?
Alexander Ankvab: We don't want a war. We are trying to make things better. If spy planes don't fly above our territory, we won't be shooting any more down. The Americans appear to have helped their Georgian partners to understand this in the last few days. Therefore we hope that our air defences won't have to fire any more shots.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: UN observers have come to the conclusion that it was not Abkhazian forces but the Russians who shot down the Georgian spy planes.
Ankvab: Even UN observers can make mistakes, especially if they rely on unreliable sources.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Since the recent recognition of Kosovo by numerous Western countries, there have been discussions about whether Abkhazia could also obtain international recognition. Many Abkhazians are demanding just that from the international community. Does the Kosovo decision offer you hope of recognition?
Ankvab: Our citizens argue quite simply and understandably: Why should we be prevented from doing what others are allowed to? Who gets to decide about international recognition? We want to be free, just like everybody else.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Abkhazia is becoming an international bone of contention. Georgia, with US support, wants to join NATO, while Abkhazia wants to be an ally of Russia. Is a compromise possible?
Ankvab: If Georgia wants to join NATO, that's its decision. Our people have made up their minds long ago. We have found friends, especially in the Russian Federation, who are helping us. We don't want to be a bone of contention. We want to have good relations with all countries, including our neighbor Georgia.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili recently suggested that Abkhazia should have "broad autonomy" within the Georgian fold and offered the Abkhazian president the post of Georgian vice president, a position which does not yet exist. Why are you not willing to even negotiate about that?
Ankvab: Abkhazia enjoyed autonomy with -- to use the term currently being employed -- "very large powers" when it was an autonomous republic within the Georgian Socialist Soviet Republic, then part of the Soviet Union. That's long ago now. The situation now is completely different. What Mr. Saakashvili has suggested is unacceptable to us. All the talk about "broad" or "the broadest" autonomy or some kind of post in the Georgian government doesn't interest us. For the past 15 years we have been an independent state with our own flag, national anthem, police force, border controls and army.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why did Abkhazia break off talks, which took place under UN auspices, with Georgia two years ago?
Ankvab: Because Georgia broke all of the agreements that were made from 1994 onwards after the war. Saakashvili ordered military units to enter the upper part of the Kodori Gorge, which lies in Abkhazian territory. Georgia has taken an aggressive political stance against the republic of Abkhazia. We are ready to sign a peace treaty with Georgia and to continue the dialogue. A condition for that, however, is the withdrawal of Georgian troops from the Kodori Gorge.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: During the Soviet era, you were Georgia's deputy interior minister for six years. You worked together with the Georgians then. Why should that no longer be possible?
Ankvab: In those days there existed a different country, the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the war between Georgia and Abkhazia in 1992 and 1993 deeply damaged our relations. In this war Abkhazia lost more people than during World War II. Anyone who now says we should live in the same state, as though nothing had happened, won't succeed.
'The US Reserves the Right to Turn Georgia into a Protectorate'
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The problem of Georgian refugees from Abkhazia remains unsolved. According to UN estimates, there are 200,000 refugees, many of whom live in extreme poverty in Georgia. Why can't these people return?
Ankvab: We have allowed the unconditional return of refugees into the district of Gali, near the Georgian border. According to various estimates, 45,000 to 60,000 people live there now who had fled during the war. Show us an area in the world where so many refugees have been allowed to return.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Georgia, however, demands that refugees should be able to return to any district of Abkhazia. Why do you reject their demand?
Ankvab: We cannot allow it for security reasons. We will not create the sitation where the majority of the population wants to get rid of our hard-fought-for republic. If we did, then not much of the Abkhazian people, culture and language would remain. We would like to bring Abkhazians whose forefathers were banished by Czarist regimes back to their homeland. If the international community would be willing to help us with that, we could talk again about the return of Georgian refugees.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ninety percent of Abkhazians, including you, have Russian citizenship. The currency in Abkhazia is the Russian ruble, Russian peacekeepers safeguard the ceasefire with Georgia. Does that not limit your independence a great deal?
Ankvab: No. After the war, Georgia declared our Soviet passports invalid in order to prevent us from traveling. I experienced this myself. We became Russian citizens out of our own free will; no one pressured us to do so. The Russian passports gave us freedom of movement -- a human right. The ruble helps our economy -- we can not afford to have our own currency.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: There was a lot of Russian involvement in the Abkhazian presidential election at the end of 2004. Moscow wanted to push its favorite through. But in the end, he lost.
Ankvab: There were attempts at involvement and interests were pursued. The most important thing is that we have now left this situation behind us. The people of Abkhazia, and no one else, chooses their leadership. I think everyone understands that.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Nevertheless, Russia has turned Abkhazia into a de facto Russian protectorate, without officially recognizing it as a state. Will this situation change?
Ankvab: The US reserves the right to turn Georgia into a protectorate, with its estimated 2,000 civilian and military advisers there. Russia has its interests in Abkhazia. Russian passports are regarded as a form of assistance, and their peacekeeping troops are seen as protection, which we want.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Abkhazia's leadership assures us that it wants a Western-style democracy based on European principles. But your president recently said in a speech that civil liberties are abused in Abkhazia "in many cases" and that a number of state institutions function "very weakly." What's holding back the development of an effective democracy in Abkhazia?
Ankvab: More than anything it's our lack of experience. We are still living in a post-war situation, most of all because of the continued blockade of our harbors and airports. After the war we had to contend with massive administrative problems. We are learning as we go along. There are no massive human rights violations in Abkhazia. However, our institutions must enforce citizens' rights more effectively.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is it really just about the lack of experience, or is it also about the corruption that so many Abkhazians complain about?
Ankvab: There is corruption on a grand scale wherever there is a lot of money at stake. That's not the case with us. Yes, crooked officials take bribes or blackmail people. But our main problem is still the dearth of professionalism. Because of the blockade, we lack the budgetary means to pay state officials an adequate salary. This, of course, influences the quality of work on all levels.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Abkhazia lies in the zone of the EU's "European Neighborhood Policy." Diplomats from European countries, including Germany, visit Abkhazia. How can Europeans help the Abkhazian people along the path of peaceful and democratic development?
Ankvab: First of all, it would be good if people stopped trying to convince us to return to Georgia. Training for specialized workers would be helpful, which Russia is already giving us. There are business people in the West who are interested in our region, mainly in the tourist industry because of our 210 kilometers of subtropical coast.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Can you imagine Abkhazia one day becoming a member of the EU?
Ankvab: That will depend on us and on Europe.
Interview conducted by Uwe Klussmann